Time to revisit ‘It will never work’

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Leaders look around corners. How many times have we heard this? But weren’t we talking about preparing for disruption from an unexpected business competitor, or a sudden change in customer expectations due to shifting demographics? Enterprise risk management teams have modeled scenarios such as natural disasters, civil unrest, low interest rates and, yes, even a pandemic. However, most of us were not prepared for a pandemic comparable to the 1918 Spanish Flu. The collective, unprecedented impact of our current environment means it is time to revisit those business models, services and technologies that we always said “will never work.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed us in ways that are still undetermined. Most notable is the daily struggle experienced by individuals, families and businesses all over the world. Many are grieving over loved ones and friends, as well as things we took for granted — like a trip to the grocery store. Our heroes aren’t only those in comic books. They’re the ones on the frontline of health care, government, law enforcement and even food delivery — those who never thought they’d have to make a life or death decision simply by showing up for work. In the aftermath of business closures and shelter-in-place orders, business revenue is minimal, rainy day funds are depleted, and expenses will far outpace aid.

While there are many things outside our control in the current environment, I have confidence that our resilience will prevail. We need businesses both small and large across industries and geographies to help us get through these unpredictable times. In revisiting ideas we thought would never work, we need a new lens to uncover untapped opportunities. As a concept, “business as usual” no longer exists. Businesses can’t simply return to the way things used to be. In this environment, finance professionals are essential and need to serve as trusted advisors. Finance professionals have a broad view of the organization’s operations and are in a great position to make recommendations that help their organizations adapt and evolve. So, let’s take a deep breath and together make lemonade by doing a few things.

Put people first

Before we can take advantage of opportunities to better our organization, we must first consider the people implications of COVID-19. Team members are dealing with a lot — health issues, fear and anxiety, home-schooling children — and work-related initiatives will always come second to their personal lives. Whether in-person or remote, business leaders must continue to prioritize workers and reflect the culture of the organization. In a virtual environment, it’s still important to connect with team members and start meetings by asking attendees how they’re doing. Leaders must continue to be understanding and flexible and, if possible, even share their own personal challenges. Team building and cohesion are necessary to help team members support corporate initiatives.

Further, evolving government decisions will escalate new requirements and expectations. As leaders assess the path forward, there are few, if any, easy answers. Along with new and revised business initiatives, there will also be a demand for new team competencies resulting from those changes. It’s important to remember that not all employees will have the same strengths — some may handle ambiguity well and others may not. However, many skillsets are needed to lead in an environment that is changing daily. Skills such as inspiration, negotiation, and emotional intelligence, coupled with the ability to learn about emerging technologies, are still critical. And yes, inclusive leadership is still needed to maximize the team’s collective strengths and personal development — even more so in the current environment.

It’s time to revisit “It will never work”

With as little as two days’ notice, many finance and technology professionals worked around the clock to ensure business operations would continue in a completely virtual environment. Tireless hours and many emergency procurements later, businesses revised operations, learned to collaborate virtually, and shifted call centers — things that many finance departments believed would never happen.

This dramatic shift highlighted the benefits of technology — businesses using cloud solutions were more prepared and able to adjust more easily to a new operating environment. On-premise technologies, which often required most of the team to physically be in the same location, were standard for business operations…until they weren’t. Cloud solutions have been implemented in organizations of all sizes with success, and benefits include increased speed to implement new initiatives, reduced technology costs, and improved security, among others. Now, after several weeks of working remotely, the genie is out of the bottle. We can’t go back to the way we used to work, and the “there” we were working toward in the pre-COVID environment has now moved.

Going forward, we must expand our imaginations and consider things that were once unthinkable. We can absolutely continue to leverage our existing business processes and strategies, but we will have lost an opportunity to craft new operating models and gain more insight if we try to completely revert to the way things used to be without deeper consideration. This doesn’t mean that finance professionals should abandon every practice or process developed over the years; however, it does mean recognizing the new reality and opportunities.

Make finance the co-pilot of the organization

The role of finance has expanded. As documented in the Changing Role and Mandate of Finance survey report issued by the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, “the finance function changes from being a center that simply generates products, such as reports, budgets and plans, to a function that works with its customers to provide innovative experiences that deliver organisation-wide value.” But, how does finance live up to this mandate when many finance professionals expend significant time manipulating data across multiple, disparate systems without standardized processes?

In more than a few cases, there is usually a “Bob system,” named after the retired team member who created “the work of art” spreadsheet that team members rely on years later. When finance functions are manual, it is difficult to achieve the vision of finance as the co-pilot of the organization. It is time to revisit those initiatives that “will never work,” eliminate inefficiency, and standardize and automate processes within the organization. Just imagine the impact of the finance department if less time were spent on reconciling the many sources of truth and more on analytics across business operations.

Pre-COVID, finance professionals were challenged with lengthy close processes, multiple spreadsheets, manual adjustments and days to generate reports. In a survey of 900 finance professionals, participants expressed frustration at not being able to work faster and more effectively because of old systems that prevented collaboration and data sharing. According to one respondent: “Accounting close delays the start to the forecasting process. Streamlining the process would assist the overall timeline.”

In the current environment, finance professionals have provided critical recommendations on how to manage cash flow, expenses and labor costs amidst uncertainty. Yet many professionals are navigating nonstandard processes and disparate systems not designed for a completely virtual world. In whatever “new norm” comes next, finance leaders should take advantage of automated close processes and cloud technologies that free up the team for high-value activities, such as analyzing business operations and preparing for the new expectations of clients, customers and business partners. A survey respondent agreed: “If we improved automated reconciliations, it would lead to a reduced number of reconciliations for our team to handle manually.”

The time is now

In only a few months, we are living vastly different lives — both personally and professionally. With a people-first approach, health, wellness and family are key priorities. COVID-19 only escalated those priorities. Personally, I believe we shouldn’t hesitate to ask for help if needed. We all respond differently to challenges and it’s OK to need “mindful” moments.

Professionally, now more than ever, finance professionals are needed to help navigate an environment that is not only uncertain, but also evolving day by day. Business-as-usual processes don’t work in the current pandemic environment and likely won’t work in the “new normal.” It’s time to revisit those “it will never work” ideas, and reimagine opportunities in an unimaginable environment. Now is the time to reassess opportunities to reduce manual processes, as well as the time it takes to complete required business functions — like closing the books. Change is scary, but isn’t the result worth it? Finance would have more time to step into the cockpit as co-pilot of the organization.

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Coronavirus Practice management AICPA Cloud computing Work from home Kimberly Ellison-Taylor